Saturday, May 28, 2005

Picture Perfect: Graham Oakley, Henry's Quest (London and Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1986)

Jessica Yates (author of the chapter on science fiction in the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (ed. by Peter Hunt) lent me this, and it really is a masterpiece of what you can do for children.

This book has to be read on two levels, the words which relate a quest narrative in a matter of fact, ironic demotic voice, and the pictures which tell a science fiction story.

In a small village kingdom surrounded by trees, the King declares a quest for PETROL. The one who finds it will marry his eldest daughter. Henry, a shepherd, takes up the quest with his donkey and travels many miles. He helps merchants fight off bandits, meets people and arrives in a fabulous city where the Emperor fetes him, and a minstrel tries to embroil him in a coup. Henry is the innocent, clueless as to the politics which go on all around him. When the Emperor accidentally sets light to the petrol store Henry is lauded as a hero by the minstrel who deposes the Emperor and takes his place. The minstrel sends Henry home with more petrol. What I particularly admired about the written story is that Oakley allows Henry to gradually catch onto the corruption of the Emperor, and that both Emperors want to follow him home and conquer the kingdom, but it is done with subtlety.

Halfway through the banquet, after the fourteenth course to be precise, the [new] emperor rose and after saying a word or two about the Birth Pains of Infant States, Self-sacrifice and the Tightening of Belts he announced that Henry was now an official National Hero and presented him with the last two tins of petrol in the whole world. Henry was overjoyed. He said that now his Quest was over and that he could return home in triumph and claim his bride and would it be rude if he went first thing in the morning. The emperor said that would be fine and Henry saw him smirk in a particularly nasty way at the minister of war and something clicked in his mind.

I really liked the fact that we aren't allowed to follow every moment of Henry's thought process, instead we have to work out what it is he has worked out. It makes us active participants in the story.

This is even more important in the pictures. Lurking in almost every picture is a hint: in the first illustration there is junk in the woods. On the second, a jousting match takes place among chicken coops made from cars and televisions, and one of the jousters wears a motorcycle helmet. The symbols on the shields of knights allude to mundane jobs such as pie making or sheepherding. Over the page, a sign for Boots the Chemist has been overwritten to read "Tom Boots and Son" and then overwritten again with the word "herbalist". When we first see Henry, he sits in a wood, but one of the trees is an over-grown electricity pylon.

It isn't just that Oakley is encoding visual jokes, it's that he demonstrates a rare sense of the way the historical landscape accumulates. To a historian, all tv historical dramas look slightly wrong, because they "dress" the people and places absolutely of the moment. But of course culture isn't like that. Look around your own home: note that plywood door which replaced the old panel doors sometime in the 1960s which you have been regretting ever since. The 1930s fireplace surrounding the 1990s gas coal effect fire in the 1880s house; the woman on the street who decided what suited her in 1985 and still has flicked back hair and shoulder pads; or just the woman whose skirt is oddly the '"wrong" length. A child reading this gets to read an sf world constructed of the lingering past in which objects are not anachronisms, because they fact that they linger means that they haven't fallen out of use--they've just found a new use. One of the most beautiful pictures is of a grounded British Airways aeroplane turned into an Anglo-Saxon style long house. Some of us may live long enough to actually witness this.

Without preaching Oakley has managed to deal with all sorts of ideas about change, scarce resources, and a culture of re-use and ingenuity. He's even got some interesting political ideas in there as the emperor pacifies his citizens with the promise of ice-cream and discos, bread and circuses.


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